Facebook isn’t a social media platform, it’s infrastructure. We’ve built monolithic platforms on a web designed for plurality and distribution. Now these platforms have become single points of failure.
“Are you able to send messages through WhatsApp?”
My wife was calling me from upstairs. She’d been messaging with other parents at our son’s preschool about plans for a Trunk & Treat during Halloween when the service suddenly went offline.
The internet has a magical ability of allowing people around the world to experience the same thing at the same time. Unfortunately the most noticeable of these experiences is when a major service goes down, as was the case Monday October 4, 2021. As if a switch had been turned off, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp users all over the world were suddenly unable to access the services. All they got were apps stuck in update limbo and websites returning nothing.
Whenever there’s a problem with Facebook, arguably the most controversial and also most heavily used platforms on the web, a fair bit of schadenfreude floods other social networks. “Oh no, how are the anti-vaxxers going to do their research now?” quickly became a repeated refrain on TikTok. The #DeleteFacebook hashtag, already building up steam after an explosive 60 Minutes interview with whistleblower Frances Haugen about the social media platform’s relative inaction on harmful content and its effects on democracy, got an added fuel injection. Virtuous declarations of how long ago influencers had abandoned Facebook and how anyone still on it were “part of the problem” abounded. Meanwhile the same influencers were complaining about lost revenue due to Instagram being down. (Instagram btw is part of Facebook.)
Judging by the chatter on social media you’d think Facebook is a media platform mainly used to share boomer jokes, figure out what your highschool friends are doing 20 years after graduation, and spread misinformation. And in the best of all possible worlds, that’s what it would be (sans the misinformation). But this is not that world, and that’s not an accurate description of what Facebook and its kin are. In this very real world, Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp operate as critical infrastructure for everything from interpersonal communication through online business to financial transactions and government services.
In many countries in Africa, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp operate as essential infrastructure. In 2019, WhatsApp was responsible for nearly half of all internet use in Zimbabwe. South Africans can renew their car license and perform other government services through WhatsApp. And when you go looking you find the same trend in countries and regions throughout Asia, Europe, South-, Centra-, and North America, and Oceania. For millions of people around the world, the services Facebook provides are their primary tool for communicating with family and friends, consuming news and information, performing business transactions, interacting with local and federal government, even sending and receiving money. Caspar Hübinger writes more about this.
So when Facebook (and Insta, and WhatsApp) goes down, for 5 hours, without any meaningful information about what’s happening or when it will be back up again, it’s not the anti-vaxxers and boomers who are paying the price – it’s the millions of people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the platform and its kin.
Like I said: Facebook is infrastructure, and has become a single point of failure for the proper functioning of the web. So it’s more than a little bit ironic, in an Alanis Morissette way, that Facebook would go down due to a single point of failure in their own system: A configuration change to their DNS system.
The core premise of the web was to allow everyone to host their own files and services, and interconnect them through a common platform. This was specifically to get away from the problem of centralized services and single points of failure. Some 30+ years later and we’ve become dependent on monolithic and monopolistic platforms like Facebook who gobble up or destroy their competitors and try to be everything to everyone. We’re back to the same problem of single points of failure, only now those single points are global entities used by millions of people. And when these services go down, they cause immediate harm to their users.
And here’s the kicker: The success of Facebook is in no small part due to how we, the people who build the web, promoted and used and drove our families and friends and clients and communities to use Facebook. We invested ourselves in the idea of Facebook integration early on. We onboarded people to the platform. We built their communities and business pages and advertising integration. We replaced native comments with Facebook comments to generate more engagement on their company pages. We built giant community groups on Facebook. We added Facebook tracking pixels to our sites and streamlined our tools so our blog posts got automatically cross-posted to our Facebook pages.
We helped make Facebook a single point of failure. And we are the only ones who can fix it.
So, the next time you feel compelled to shout #DeleteFacebook from the rooftops and declare yourself morally superior to the commoners who still languish on the platform you abandoned a decade ago for ethical reasons, remember that for millions of people we have yet to build viable alternatives.
The next time you think to yourself it’s only a matter of time before some government entity steps in and breaks up Facebook to reduce their power, remember that politicians trying to figure out how to keep terrorism, CSAM, and other harmful content off the web think Facebook is the web, and that things that are not Facebook – like your website – must be regulated as if they were Facebook.
And the next time you set up a WordPress site, or a Gatsby site, or a Wix site, or any other site for your client, notice how easy it is to add Facebook integration to ensure your client gets to benefit from that sweet poison known as surveillance capitalism.
Facebook is infrastructure. Infrastructure change is a generational project. If we don’t provide viable low-friction user-centric alternatives to Facebook’s myriad of services soon, the web will become Facebook. That’s not hyperbole – it just hasn’t happened to you. Yet.